I was surprised to realize, after I turned the final page and perused the back jacket, that Like Son was not Felicia Luna Lemus’s first novel. It reads like a debut, in good ways and in bad. It’s ultimately an earnest but uneven book, and it seems to spend much of its time casting about for an identity, and a voice, that suits it best.
Lemus’s story centers around Frank, the transgender protagonist thrust back into the throes of familial drama with news of his father’s terminal illness. A gift from his dying father sets Frank on an unsettling cross-country path, as he picks up and moves from his native California to the unfamiliar terrain of New York City. There he meets Nathalie, and their long-standing relationship begins to generate some drama of its own after the catastrophe of September 11th. Frank struggles to make sense of his life, his relationship, and his past while everything around him seems to careen out of control.
Many novels live and die by their narrators. The storyteller within the story is the entrance point – the guide e follow. Frank proves difficult to engage with, if only because his voice is so chameleon-like. One minute, he’s speaking directly to us, in strained slang like “okay, please don’t laugh, but I swear…” and the next minute he’s waxing poetic with sentences such as “I feared that all that gold, all that shimmering glory we’d once been, had transformed into a shattered mess of dead weight.” The resulting narrative suffers from stylistic schizophrenia, and its unevenness becomes distracting.
From a feminist viewpoint, a book with a transgender protagonist that doesn’t make a big deal out of that fact is a great thing. However, this quality is mitigated by the blithe sexism with which Nathalie is portrayed by Frank throughout the story. Nathalie never comes across as more than two-dimensional, despite Frank’s continual odes to her eccentricity, her charisma and, of course, her dainty, fragile, über-feminine beauty. Frank worships her, but ultimately objectifies her. We never get a good sense of why he loves her, other than that she turns him on. So, while the politics of how this transgender man loves a femme woman prove problematic on a feminist level, the up-side is that it opens up space for discussion and debate about the rocky relationship between feminism and transgender issues.